- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- They were sitting in their dorm room late at night talking, not necessarily about anything deep or meaningful. Just talking, as people do at the end of the day.
They were Villanova freshmen, two guys tossed together by the fate of their college who would grow so close that even now, eight years later, they remain as tight as brothers.
And so that night as they talked casually, their friendship already on solid footing, Will Sheridan told Mike Nardi something he had only told a few people.
"I just said, 'I need to tell you something I'm gay,'" Sheridan said.
Those two words are the last hurdles to be cleared in sports, the five letters strung together that critics insist would destroy a locker room and more, destroy the athlete who utters them.
Yes, there are plenty of gay athletes we know of, but few men and fewer still from the major team sports. On OutSports.com, a website that covers the gay and lesbian sports community, numerous stories can be found of gay team captains and star athletes -- and the teammates who accepted them -- but for the most part, these stories come from high schools and smaller colleges and now even the highest positions in professional sports.
Sunday's New York Times told the story of Rick Welts, the 58-year-old president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns who recently met with friends, associates and a newspaper reporter to reveal he is gay.
But in terms of American athletes being out publicly at the highest levels of competition (pro leagues and the revenue sports in Division I), former NBA journeyman John Amaechi; ex-NFLers Esera Tuaolo, David Kopay and Roy Simmons; Glenn Burke and Billy Bean from Major League Baseball; and former college football players Dwight Slater (Stanford) and Akil Patterson (Maryland) are essentially the beginning and end of the list. And, like Sheridan, all of those players came out only after their playing days were over.
We talk about homosexuality in sports only when a lightning-rod moment comes along -- Kobe Bryant fined for using a gay slur in reference to an official, Sean Avery praised and derided for speaking out in support of same-sex marriage in an ad campaign -- then brush it aside, either pretending it doesn't exist or just preferring not to discuss it.
Which is why now, four years after his Villanova basketball career ended, Will Sheridan feels compelled to talk. Not because of Bryant or Avery. He decided to speak publicly months before either incident occurred.
But because he just doesn't get it anymore.
The big deal. The turmoil. The stigma.
He's proud of who he is, confident, comfortable, borderline arrogant even. And although it wasn't easy, his wasn't the torturously impossible and lonely road so many presumed it would be.
That night that he told Nardi, his teammate didn't recoil or walk out of the room. He didn't ask for a new roommate.
He made a joke.
"I just said, 'Don't go putting a hit on me or sniffing my underwear or nothing,'" Nardi said. "I mean I was surprised because it was new to me. I had never really experienced anything like that, but it's not like it mattered. I don't know. I mean, we were friends. Who cares?"
Will Sheridan went to Villanova with the same dream every college kid totes in his suitcases to college -- to become the person he was supposed to be.
He found that person. It's a wonderfully complicated, constantly evolving and multidimensional person.
He's an athlete, a former Division I basketball player who was good enough to start for most of his four seasons, pivotal seasons as the Wildcats blossomed into a national power.
He's a musician, with a video ("Welcome to the Jungle") that has gone mini-viral on YouTube and another one ("302") about to drop this week.
He's an artist, a performer who is packing the club scene in New York, people responding to his music and his message.
He's a businessman, a manager at a world-renowned fashion retailer.
And he happens to be gay.
"I'm trying to have a voice, and I want that voice to reach as many people as it can," he said. "I mean, look at me. I'm black. I'm gay. I'm like a quadruple minority, and I feel like a little piece of me resides in everybody. Maybe there's a kid out there who doesn't think he's OK, and he can look at me and say, 'OK, he played college basketball. He went overseas. He has a music career and now he's living his life. Now he's who he wants to be and he's happy and confident and comfortable.' It's my responsibility to talk about that."
They call it the Holy War in Philly, though in truth the rivalry between Saint Joseph's and Villanova is more profane than holy.
What once was a heated battle filled with harmless pranks has, in recent years, turned nasty. The rollouts -- banners unfurled in the stands -- have gone from clever to lewd, and the vitriol spewing from the stands, particularly when played in the split house of the Palestra, can be flat-out cruel.
Although Sheridan wasn't out publicly in college, he didn't entirely hide, either. He quietly and privately dated a man from another Philadelphia school. Plus, he was artsy -- he took part in spoken-word performances at Villanova. He ran funny, on his tiptoes. ("I actually tried to change that for years," Sheridan said. "Then I said, f--- it. Some people talk funny. I run funny.") So there was plenty of stereotypical ammunition and rumor mill gossip to load up opposing fans.
And when Villanova played Saint Joe's at the Palestra, the Hawks students unloaded.
"I remember at some games, especially Saint Joe's games, they were unreal," said Sheridan, recalling taunts about specific homosexual acts.
"At first, I was like, 'My grandma is sitting right there,'" Sheridan said. "And as a human being you feel it when people say nasty things. But then I thought, 'That's just stupid. If you were gay, you'd like to do [those things], too."
The fans' treatment of Sheridan surely speaks to the toxicity many fear a gay athlete would face should he come out during his playing career.
His reaction, his ability to laugh without a trace of bravado, says even more. Certainly, Sheridan is unique, a preposterously confident 26-year-old. Not everyone would be as well-equipped to handle the vulgarity as he is.
But then again, who's to know whether everyone would have the experience Sheridan had? The general consensus is that a gay athlete would be all but shunned by his teammates. Just last week, NC State's C.J. Leslie gave credence to the notion, tweeting (before later apologizing) "I'm no anti gay but I would rather not have a gay n the locker room," and "I'm not saying I hate gays but that's sumthing I would not wnt n my locker room."
Except by the time Sheridan graduated from his Catholic university, most of his teammates knew he was gay, and they didn't care. Amaechi is on the record as saying the same thing happened when he was with the Utah Jazz. More and more, coming-out stories -- especially among the younger generation -- include teammate support or, at worst, indifference.
Sheridan told Nardi first and over the years told other teammates as he grew comfortable and trusted them. There was never, Nardi joked, "a team meeting to discuss Will being gay." It was simple and private, friends and teammates sharing personal information about one another.
And it stayed that way, an extraordinary wall of silence in an age of message boards. That no one whispered or gossiped says perhaps more than anything how indifferent and even disinterested the Wildcats were about their teammate's sexuality.
"Your personal life is your personal life," Nardi said. "It didn't matter to us because it's family, and you don't go putting your family's secrets out in the streets. I mean, why would I tell anyone? It's no one's business except Will's."
The locker room dynamic, team chemistry, none of it changed. He and Nardi would room together for three of their four seasons, and Sheridan remained a popular teammate and vital part of the Wildcats' success.
The players joked the way they always joked, talked the way they always talked.
"I'd still say things like, 'Oh, that s--- is gay,'" Nardi said. "He didn't care. He wasn't sensitive like that because he knew what I meant."
Evidence of the team's unity and comfort lies in one simple nugget: Jay Wright never knew his starting power forward was gay until after Sheridan graduated.
No one ever went to him with a complaint or a worry. No one even bothered to tell him.
"After I found out, I was like, 'Did you know?' And all the guys, they were like, 'Yeah, Coach, we knew,'" Wright said. "They just didn't care, and I guess I was just oblivious."
Oblivious. That's exactly the word Sheridan used, as well. He laughed when trying to explain his basketball-centric coach, making an itty-bitty telescope with his hands to show just how tunneled Wright's vision was.
The two were then, and remain now, extremely close. Whenever Sheridan performed his spoken word at Villanova, Wright always attended -- "He'd be in the back of the room waiting, and I'd be last. I knew he had a million other things to do, but he was always there," Sheridan said -- and just last week, Sheridan called Wright to congratulate him on his hiring of a new assistant coach.
They shared more than a few heart-to-heart conversations, but as silly as it might sound, Sheridan's lifestyle never came up.
"I feel foolish now, but he was the perfect student, the perfect student-athlete, the perfect teammate. He never gave me an ounce of worry," Wright said. "He was so low maintenance. You could ask him to do anything, and he'd do it. I don't know. It sounds weird, but it never came up."
Sheridan, frankly, preferred it that way. He never felt like he had to hide, never worried that Wright would be angry. He just thought there were other things that mattered more at the time.
Sheridan came to Nova just as the Wildcats were growing into a national power. In his sophomore season, the program made its first NCAA tournament appearance under Wright and, in his junior season, the Wildcats ascended to No. 1 in the nation at one point and advanced to the Elite Eight after earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
In all, the Cats would make three NCAA tournament appearances and own a 92-41 record in Sheridan's tenure.
"It wasn't pressure, not at all, but I knew it would be a big deal and I always felt like I was part of something bigger," Sheridan said. "This wasn't about me being gay. It was about our team trying to do something together. I didn't think it was appropriate."
And so Sheridan lived his life. He dated. He went to clubs, and he played basketball. He didn't mix the two, but he didn't separate them entirely, either.
Eventually he graduated, played overseas in Italy for a short time and -- at an alumni event in New York -- introduced his coach to his then-partner.
Asked whether it would have mattered had Sheridan spoken publicly while he was playing, Wright paused.
"It's easy to say now, but I don't think it would have," Wright said. "I mean, for a day or two, it would have been news, but then it would have been, 'That's just Bump [Sheridan's childhood nickname].' The level of respect they all had for each other -- and still do -- as players and people is incredible. That's really all that ever mattered to these guys."
On Wednesday night, Sheridan is hosting the first screening of his second music video, "302," at Rockbar in New York City.
The title comes from the area code for Bear, Del., where Sheridan grew up. There, they still call him Bump, a nickname earned in utero because he pounded so relentlessly on his mother's stomach.
Once a rural area, Bear has grown in population and become more of an outgrowth of Wilmington, but it retains its small-town vibe. People there know one another pretty well, and they certainly knew Sheridan.
The tiny state doesn't produce many high-profile athletes, and Sheridan, twice named Delaware's player of the year, became a big deal as his high school career blossomed.
That basketball brought him notoriety and also to the strange intersection with his personal life is pretty ironic to Sheridan. He is known first and foremost as a basketball player, yet he never had grand plans of becoming one. He wasn't a kid with big dreams of an NBA career. In fact, years later when Wright referenced blue-collar professionals Sheridan played like, he would just shrug.
"I didn't know who they were," Sheridan laughed. "I was never a guy who watched the NBA or loved the NBA or any of that."
But he was tall -- already 6-4 by the eighth grade -- so, somewhere along the way, he wound up on a basketball court. Turns out he was pretty good, too, ranked among the top 50 players nationally by one publication. And good meant winning -- including a state title as a junior -- and Sheridan loved winning, so he stuck with it, parlaying his talent into a free ride to Villanova.
His father, Will Sr., and mother, Josie, both police officers, couldn't have been prouder. Their son was always a model student -- he was class president as a high school freshman and sophomore and treasurer as a senior -- and now they had a Division I athlete to boot.
"I couldn't walk out the door or into the Acme [grocery] without someone asking me, 'How's Bump? How's he playing?'" Will Sr. said.
Then Will Sr. paused.
"They still ask me even now," he said. "Now it's just a long story."
Sheridan came out to his parents at the end of his freshman season. He describes the conversation as "epic," stretching out the word and his arms across the table at a New York City restaurant to emphasize just how epic it was.
Perhaps naive then -- "I figured I was in college and my tuition was paid for by my sport, so you love me for me, right?" -- Sheridan now understands better his parents' struggle to accept his sexual orientation.
He is the baby of the family and the golden child, the good-looking, smart, athletic and talented boy who never gave them a whiff of trouble.
"I don't care how open-minded you say you are, as a parent you project so much on your kids without even realizing it," Sheridan said. "You want them to be the best at everything, and you have dreams of what your life will be and their life will be. To them, this was just no way. Denial. It didn't fit with who I was, or who they thought I was. I was perfect. This didn't work."
Josie Sheridan always preached unconditional love, and she meant it.
And when the test came -- when her son, whom she calls her best friend, sat her down -- loving him wasn't hard. But accepting the news was.
"Devastated. I was devastated," she said. "I mean, I was disappointed. Not in him, but in things that were taken away -- not having a daughter-in-law, grandchildren, things like that."
But after the initial shock wore away, Josie looked at her son and saw something that had been missing -- happiness. He was always a good child ("too good to be true," his high school coach once told her), but a tickle in the back of her mind, a mother's instinct, told her he should have been happier.
And she could never figure out what was missing.
Until she saw it.
"Once I saw him, so happy and content, that's all I needed," Josie said. "I never loved him any less. In fact, I think I love him more. I've always been so proud of him, but he has such courage. This takes courage."
Courageous wasn't how Sheridan's father saw it. Although his mother quickly came to grips with her son's news, Sheridan's dad took time. A long time.
Father and son didn't speak for almost a year.
"I come from a background of all solid men," Will Sr. said. "I'm a retired police officer. You have to understand, I didn't grow up around people like that. I didn't see them, didn't know them. Even as a police officer, I didn't have that much exposure. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't do it for almost a year."
In unvarnished print, those words sound harsh and unforgiving. In truth, they are merely evidence of a generational divide. Will Sr. is 56, born and raised in a small town and in a time when homosexuality was still in the closet. There weren't television series with mainstream gay characters as there are today, and there were few, if any, conversations, let alone fierce court battles, about the rights of same-sex couples.
And the idea of a gay son -- 6-foot-8 and athletically gifted -- was even harder to grasp.
Around the same time that Sheridan came out to his parents, his older sister Chaeloa (she and Sheridan have different mothers) told her father that she, too, was gay.
"When everything hit the fan, the whole focus was on my brother being gay," Chaeloa said. "My dad had issues with Will. All the negativity was directed toward him. He never said a negative word to me. Still hasn't."
Will Sr. was raised to believe his son's sexual orientation was a choice, a choice he could unmake as easily as he had made it.
So, Will Sr. set about punishing that choice out of Sheridan.
He took away his car and stopped paying his insurance, cutting off his son emotionally and financially.
"I just did these things to make him realize, 'I'm not playing, son. You let this thing go. You stop,'" Will Sr. said. "I honestly almost lost it."
At his sister's advice, Sheridan stayed away. He gave his father space to think and work things out. He turned to a Villanova counselor for help and spent hours in Wright's office talking.
Wright only knew one of his favorite players was hurting. He didn't know why.
"I feel so foolish now looking back because he'd tell me how his father didn't understand him," Wright said. "But he never said anything, and I never asked. I just listened and tried to help him."
Will Sr., a religious man, said the power of prayer is what ultimately turned him around. This isn't a fairy tale, so there wasn't some Aha! moment or soul-bearing conversation. Painful gaps and generational gaps aren't bridged quickly or easily.
Although they began to speak after a year, Will Sr. elected not to attend his son's senior banquet or graduation and admits that, even now, he has to tell himself almost daily, "That's your son. Love him. Love him as he is."
Just a month ago, the two finally closed the circle.
Sheridan went home and got his father, and together they drove to Villanova's most recent team banquet.
"We are closer now than we've ever been," Sheridan said. "We talk all the time, but I know it's hard. I know it's still really hard for him."
Indeed, although a relationship has been reborn, stronger and more honest than it was before, acceptance remains aloof.
Will Sr. admits he is worried what people will think, what his fellow churchgoers will say, when they read this article. He himself still struggles, straddling the line between enlightenment and ignorance.
At one point in a 30-minute phone conversation, Will Sr. said, "I don't use the word 'tolerate.' I 'appreciate.' I appreciate that this is who he is, and I believe this is who God wants him to be."
And then, only minutes later, he adds, "I treat him like he ain't. I believe one day he's going to change. He says he's not, but I believe he will. A man has to have some kind of belief and hope."
A year after graduation, Sheridan moved to New York City, taking his mother's advice to go to the bright lights and find his dream.
He met new friends, started hanging out at various clubs, but quickly grew tired of listening to what he thought were meaningless rappers whose music had no message.
Fueled by the perfect concoction of ignorance and hubris, he hosted his first party -- the Will to Win, he called it -- at the Spark Center, a tiny cafe attached to an Italian restaurant in New York. With virtually no fanfare -- he mentioned it on his blog -- he packed the place and more than 1,200 people downloaded his music after that night.
Sheridan had always been a writer -- in college he penned a journal for the Philadelphia Daily News during Villanova's 2006 NCAA tournament run and after, he wrote for Source magazine -- so writing lyrics wasn't a stretch.
But a career as a musician? Sheridan wasn't certain.
At least not until he spent 10 days in Nairobi working at the Ruiru Rehabilitation Center.
And by work, Sheridan means toil. He and two friends went to Kenya on their own, interested in helping instead of vacationing. There, they refurbished the outside kitchen facilities while living on site.
"I've traveled a lot in my life for sports through basketball, but never anything like this," Sheridan said. "We watched people wake up at 5 a.m. to scrub the floors, then walk to school and come back and work more with us. It inspired me, and it really added to my personal power."
That power now has found its focus in Sheridan's music.
It is, he believes, himself in its truest form.
His first EP is called "Ngoma," which is Swahili for music. His first video, "Welcome to the Jungle," has a decidedly African rhythm and the constant refrain of the word "asante," which means thank you.
Thank you, music.
It is the perfect phrase to capture Sheridan.
In music, he has found not only his purpose but also his voice. His songs are equal parts personal and inspirational. They are strong and powerful, with a message and a meaning.
And they are reaching people. He now has a deal with a record label, affording him the chance to make more polished videos, and he's hosting more parties with bigger crowds than ever.
He even counts his parents among his fans; his mom knows all the words to his songs and frequently comes to his shows. And although his dad admits, "It's not my kind of music," he thinks it's pretty good.
It all still seems fairly whirlwind to Sheridan, but his friends in the profession saw his success coming from his very first show.
"He just had such a stage presence," said Brittiny Porter, who goes by DJ Bonnie Danger and has worked with Sheridan frequently. "The way he performed, the delivery, his comfort. It was like he'd been doing it his whole life. He's just getting started, but I think he can definitely blow it out. There's no end for him."
Sheridan isn't about becoming world famous, "though I wouldn't mind it," he said with a laugh. He wants people to listen to his music and respond. He wants people to know who he is and react.
He's not naive. He knows some of that reaction might not be positive. But he's also not worried.
In fact, he's empowered.
"I'm prepared to cut the grass and let the snakes show themselves," he said. "I don't need people who won't be supportive. I have a career that I've earned. I have friends whose respect I've gained. I have this music thing that I've started. If you don't want to be in that conversation, then I just won't have the conversation with you. I'm proud of who I am."
Mostly Sheridan hopes that by speaking, by telling his story, others will share their stories, too.
And maybe together, with one person telling his or her story and another and another, they will finally put a stop to the turmoil and the stigma.
This won't be news anymore. It won't be such a big deal.
People will know Will Sheridan as a musician and an artist and a performer.
They'll remember that he was a Division I basketball player.
They'll know that he's gay.
And they won't care.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.